Nintendo at GDC 2009: It’s the software, stupid!

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

San Francisco (CA) – There is no doubt that Nintendo is currently dominating the console gaming world and the company isn’t exactly shy of explaining its rivals why that is the case: Software sells hardware, said Nintendo president Satoru Iwata during his keynote at GDC 2009. While that is not exactly news for many people, he gave conference attendees an idea just how much effort the company puts into developing entertaining games.   

In plain sales numbers, sales of the Wii and DS consoles are crushing. The Wii alone has sold more than 50 million units, while rival Sony has sold only 16 million PS3s in the same time frame. Hardware sales are an incentive for software developers as they increase the potential customer base, but hardware sales largely depend on available software. Nintendo has been especially successful in balancing attractive hardware and software and gave attendees at GDC 2009 an idea why that is the case.

The core idea for every game on Nintendo is fun, according to Iwata. And the task of figuring out why a particular game may or may not be fun falls to legendary game designer Shiguru Miyamoto, which was responsible for the development of titles such as "Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda." Finding a fun activity and then replicating it within a game is the difficult part. And the company goes to great lengths to help is staff understand what exactly is fun. For example, Iwata said that he approved a budget for “dancing” for some employees back in 2004 to help develop a game that was pitched by Japanese singer and songwriter Tsunku. The effort eventually resulted in the game Rhythm Heaven, which was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2006 and for the Nintendo DS in 2007 in Japan. The titles will be available in the U.S. in early April.

Developers who surprise each other remain the most significant component in game development, Iwata said. “"The future of video games is in your hands and I cannot wait for you to show us your surprise."  

There were not many product announcements during the speech. Most significant was a flash storage solution for the Wii, which supports flash storage (SD) cards with a capacity of up to 32 GB. Nintendo gave several previews of upcoming games such as The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS), Moving Memo (DSi) and WarioWare: Snapped (DSi). The Wii will get a new downloadable game called Rock N' Roll Climber that uses the Wii Balance board and there will be additions to the Wii virtual console including Starforce, Mappy, Gaplus and Tower of Druaga.